“Exactly…that’s exactly how I feel right now.”
Those are the words I want someone to say every time they share something with me.
At HeartSupport, I’ve had the privilege of traveling the country and having over 2,000 people share their personal stories with me. Most of the times, I’m a total stranger to them. I interrupted them at a concert and asked them a personal question…”So, what’s your story?” People are often uncomfortable opening up with someone they don’t know (and I don’t blame them). But there are some people who are brave enough to share. They’ve gone through life, passed hundreds of people, and felt totally invisible. Having someone ask them about their story feels like an opportunity they don’t want to pass up. They entrust me with some of their darkest moments and deepest wounds. It’s an incredible honor and a significant responsibility to be the person they share with. Especially because there are times where they’ve opened up to others, where they chose to be vulnerable, and the other person judged them, criticized them, or just didn’t handle their vulnerability with the appropriate care or tenderness. So they’re not only just choosing to be vulnerable, but they’re choosing to be courageous and take a chance that I won’t be like others in their past. That I’ll be confidential and compassionate and hold the space for them to share safely.
There are times when I’ve gotten it really right, and there are times I’ve gotten it really wrong. But after having hundreds and hundreds of conversations, I found the single most powerful thing you can do for someone who’s struggling. As I’ve gotten better at doing it, it’s the best thing I have to offer anyone who comes into the HeartSupport tent, to anyone who writes on our Support Wall, or to anyone who contacts me personally seeking help for any struggle they’re facing. It’s my life-change swiss army knife and immediate go-to if someone comes to me for help, and it’s been foundational to the impact I’ve had on many people across the country. Don’t miss it; here’s my secret:
I know this feels so underwhelming—you might even feel tempted to click away from the blog because it’s like…really? That’s it? NEXT. But there’s so much more mastery to listening than you might have ever realized, and if you do it wrong, you might miss out on the opportunity to help someone feel understood, seen, heard, and loved. Listening to someone well could literally be the difference between life and death for someone. I’m not writing this for views; I’m writing this for you to take this and bring it into the lives of your friends and those you encounter because it will change their lives, and it will change yours too.
WHAT IS LISTENING, AND HOW TO DO IT
Let me quickly review what listening ISN’T: it’s not a passive act. It’s not waiting. It’s not just hearing what they say. It’s not even necessarily understanding what they say.
The goal of listening is to make the other person FEEL completely seen, known, and understood by you. In this sense, it has far less to do with you than it has to do with them. It’s about making the other person feel like you could fill in their blanks and even retell their story better than they could.
The best way to help them feel like you understand them is appropriately reflecting back to them throughout the conversation. In this sense, listening is typically an active interaction, and your job is to communicate back to them what you heard to help them feel understood. Listening has multiple layers of depth. Each one builds on the previous layer, and while each layer requires more mastery, it also increases how understood you make someone feel and how much impact you will have:
1) Reflecting what they actually said
This is repeating back to them the exact words they said. This demonstrates that you physically and literally heard them.
Typically, this is what people believe listening is. It’s being able to repeat back what was said if you are asked. But this is just the first layer of listening. Obviously, you can’t listen if you aren’t literally hearing what they’re saying, but if this is as deep as you go with others, you’re missing out on powerful influence and love you could give to the person who’s asking something from you.
You can tell you struggle with this layer of listening if your attention is spent formulating your response, waiting for them to stop talking, and offering your answer. I know for me, this is as good as my listening got for most of my life. Their words would almost pass from one ear, stick around long enough to be conjured if I was quizzed, and then exit the other ear. Meanwhile, the rest of my mind was solving their problems with my extraordinary wisdom and preparing the most eloquent and impressive response to gift them when they paused for breath.
In this sense, listening requires you to be present with them as they’re talking and give them all of your faculties. It requires you to be patient with your words—you don’t have to have the answer for them the moment they stop talking. And to be honest, can you really give the best advice if you don’t truly understand their situation? It would be like an eye doctor giving you glasses without examining your vision first. Or a pediatrician writing a sick child a script without understanding their symptoms. Or a clothing company not asking for your size before shipping you your order. Could you imagine receiving a pile of XL clothing if you’re a medium? Or a far-sighted pair of glasses if you need help reading? Or a prescription of diarrhetics for a migraine? This is why listening requires your full attention.
But it also requires you to go deeper than simply hearing what they say.
2) Reflecting what they felt
This is putting yourself in their shoes, feeling the emotions they might feel, and imaging yourself living through their story.
This layer is critical to truly understanding them. This is about imagining yourself as them, in their world, living their life as they tell it. It’s almost like being an actor and trying to fully take on the thoughts and emotions of the character you’ve been cast to play. You abandon your life, opinions, and beliefs and step into their skin, and your life becomes about living and breathing your character. This means if they share something that you would disagree with, goes against your morals, or rubs you the wrong way, your goal isn’t to correct them or to steer them to think the way you think. Your goal is to make sense of what your character did and why they felt that way. Even if it doesn’t make sense to you, if you can understand them, everything they do makes sense. Very rarely do people do things that don’t make sense to them in that moment. Looking back, they might have made a different choice or even known the choice they were making wasn’t the best one. But they made the choice for a reason (even if it wasn’t a good reason). And your job is to understand that reason. Then, you’ll be able to reflect back to them their fears and the reasons for their anxiety, their sadness, their regrets, and their pain, and they will feel deeply understood by you.
3) Reflecting what they need
Each person sharing needs something different. Sometimes it’s encouragement, sometimes it’s strength, sometimes it’s compassion, and sometimes it’s a hug. As you understand them deeply, you’ll discover what they need, and your response should reflect that.
Some people need your tears because they’ve felt so alone and inhuman and disconnected from others, and some people would close off if you cried because it feels to them like unnecessary pity. Some people need a hug in the middle of their story because they’re crumbling, and some people would feel like you’re interrupting them from getting to the parts they really needed to share. Some people need you to laugh at how ridiculous their situation is, and some people would find it offensive that you’re not taking them seriously.
Every person is different, and every person needs something different. Their stories are unique, and your approach for each person should reflect that uniqueness. As you feel them and understand their story, it will become apparent to you what it is they’re asking from you. Don’t be a hammer and treat each person like a nail. Be a tool box and bring to them what they need.
4) Reflecting that you are with them
This is less of something you say and more about the posture of your soul. It’s communicating with your heart that you are WITH them. You are right there in their story beside them. You are seeing what they’re seeing and feeling what they’re feeling. It’s not something you could tell them with words, but it is something they perceive from you whether or not you intentionally communicate it with them.
If all of your attention and compassion and love are directed at this person as they’re sharing, this is probably something that’s going to emanate naturally from you. But sometimes, I almost imagine thinking at that person, “You are so loved. You are going to be ok, and I’m here with you. You are strong and courageous, and you are going to make it through this season. I know it because I can see it in you.” Bring your full belief, your whole heart, and all of your presence to them, and they will feel you step into their story with them. And that alone might make them feel more loved than anything you could ever say to them.
As you practice intentional listening more, each of these layers becomes more natural. The first few times I actively listened to someone’s story, it felt mechanical, almost like I was a robot. But as I practiced more and more, I was able to communicate I’m with you to them and was able to naturally reflect what they need (and not what I thought they should have).
When you hear those words, “Exactly. That’s exactly how I feel.” after you reflect back to someone you’re listening to, know that you’re giving them a rare gift. When you get listening right, it changes them. There’s something transformational that happens when they feel understood. It’s almost like they can breathe for the first time. They feel loved in a richer way than they might have ever felt before because love is feeling seen and known and being accepted for all that they are. If you understand them deeply—possibly better than anyone has ever taken the time to do so— you can help reverse hopelessness, eradicate loneliness, and fill meaninglessness. So listen…with all of your attention and compassion. Reflect what they say and feel, reflect what they need, and help them feel that you are with them. Because then you will make them feel a new depth of love, and love transforms.